Back-to-School (BTS) refers to a 13-week period beginning in mid-July, peaking around the end of August/beginning of September, and returning to normal sales volumes in mid-October.

In June, Amazon will reopen its Back-To-School site, a central hub for shoppers to find the best deals on back-to-school items such as classroom supplies, backpacks and laptops. Once that page opens, the featured brands will have a major advantage in the competition for shoppers’ attention, so now is the time for brands to start getting ready.

As with most promotional periods, promotions need to be locked in ahead of time. Both promotions and performance have an effect on which items appear on Amazon’s BTS page, but once it opens in June, brands will either be in or out. Though it’s possible to adapt in real time during the season, it will probably be too late because the initial wave of traffic will have already been captured by brands that were better prepared, reinforcing their sales and search performance and widening the gap between the winners and the losers.

This is why brands can’t afford to fall behind at this crucial time. They need to start prepping their promotions and optimizing their product listings in order to earn their place on Amazon’s BTS page and ensure the flow of traffic does not pass them by. If they haven’t already, they need to get ready for back-to-school now.

Get Ready: Back-To-School 2018

 

Big Impacts

By looking back on past years, we can get a complete picture of the trends affecting BTS sales and the best practices for success. Comparing 2016 and 2017 BTS sales during the entire 13-week period and contrasting it with Q2 sales allows us to identify where BTS is having the biggest impact and where the biggest opportunities lie in 2018.

In 2017, Amazon’s sales of Office Supplies grew by 31% year-over-year. If we zoom in on the 13-week back-to-school period, YoY growth was only 32%. From this fact, we can conclude that BTS alone isn’t drawing more consumers to Amazon – the growth in BTS sales can be entirely explained by the year-round growth of Office Supplies.

Though BTS doesn’t have a significant impact on sales volumes, it has a major impact on consumer behavior – People aren’t buying more Office Supplies at this time of the year, but they are buying different products. For example, last year during BTS Binders & Binding Systems saw a 77% seasonal lift while its parent category, Office Organization Supplies, grew by only 20%. (In the below chart of the top Office Supplies categories, the “Seasonality Impact” figures compares BTS 2017 sales to total Q2 sales, showing us which categories are most impacted: Writing Instruments & Accessories, Classroom Supplies, Printer Paper and Calculators.)

Success during high traffic periods is about more than sales volume, it’s about leveraging the traffic to grow the brand and generate long-term sales lift. So even for low-growth categories like Printers, Laptops and youth apparel, BTS should be seen as an opportunity to drive up average weekly sales permanently.

 

Get Ready: Back-To-School 2018

 

Prepping for Back-to-School

  1. Managing Inventory

The above chart includes a figures labelled “Peak Sales vs. Q2 Average”. This figure compares the largest week of sales during BTS 2017 to the weekly average during the second quarter of that year, to illustrate the potential impact of BTS on inventory levels.

For example, Calculators is both the smallest category and is growing the least year-over-year, but it’s also the category that experiences the biggest impact from BTS. Peak sales last year were 363% higher than average Q2 weekly sales, led by the TI-84 Plus from Texas Instruments, the go-to for mathematics classes and standardized tests in the US for years. During BTS season, the most popular ASINs might see their average weekly sales grow multiple times over, so it’s critical that brands are prepared for the increased demand.

By capturing traffic and sales during BTS, brands drive up their organic search rank, allowing it to stabilize at a higher position than before the season. But brands that aren’t properly prepared for the (potentially huge) increase in traffic risk going out of stock, which can cause long-term weekly averages to fall while other brands pick up the slack (the chart below depicts the weekly sales of an item which stocked out following a promotion during BTS 2017, causing sales to plummet). Brands should analyze projected sales against the Amazon-provided forecast in Vendor Central. If the forecast isn’t high enough, brands can try to influence Amazon to increase orders ahead of the event.

Get Ready: Back-To-School 2018

 

  1. Capturing Repeat Customers

The fastest-growing BTS category is Printer Paper. The success of this category illustrates one of the most important things about this season: brands have an opportunity to leverage this high-traffic period to expand their brand footprint and to capture loyal, repeating customers.

Printers, one of Amazon’s largest Office Supplies categories, experiences little impact from BTS. However, the category is linked to Printer Paper – which is strongly impacted by BTS and is growing by 55% YoY – because consumers that buy their printers from Amazon are much more likely to buy their paper from the same place. Similarly, when ASUS sells a laptop on Amazon, that customer will probably come back if they want to buy an accessory like a case or a mouse.

During the BTS season, brands should identify which products are most likely to drive up loyalty and result in repeat purchases, and focus their promotions on those ASINs. Brands that sell in specific consumable categories can also identify opportunities by tracking related items; for example, X-ACTO’s pencil sharpeners are among the bestsellers in the Writing Instruments & Accessories category, but X-ACTO doesn’t manufacturer pencils, so that indicates a large potential audience for pencil brands on Amazon. A strong performance during a high traffic period allows brands to build their base of repeat customers, generating a steady flow of sales which drives up their search ranking and visibility for the rest of the year.

  1. Identifying Niche Appeal

Not all categories see a huge spike in sales during BTS. Laptops, for example, experience a relatively small seasonality impact of 16%. But like in Office Supplies, volume isn’t everything – even if total sales are flat, consumer behavior changes during BTS season. For Laptops, this takes the form of a consumer preference for small and lightweight laptops, a trend that is clearly visible when we look at the bestsellers from each of the top Laptop brands during BTS 2017.

Get Ready: Back-To-School 2018

 

Notice how each of these laptops is compact (15.6″ or less) and both ASUS and Dell use targeted marketing right in the title: “Ultra-Slim” and “Ultra Thin and Light” respectively (the Microsoft Surface Pro is categorized on Amazon as a tablet, but marketed by Microsoft as a laptop/tablet hybrid).

Getting ready for BTS requires understanding the ways in which shoppers behave differently. A 17-inch high-performance laptop might be a top seller year-round, but it’s not worth supporting with a BTS promotion because the shoppers who will see these promotions are in the market for something that won’t weigh down a backpack, that will fit on a cramped desk, and that they don’t mind getting dinged up once in a while.

Identifying the products that are uniquely suited to the BTS season allows brands to use strategic, targeted promotions to gain visibility and drive sales. For example in Backpacks – a major BTS category last year with a seasonality impact of 79% and peak weekly sales of nearly triple compared to the Q2 average – the top item had niche appeal. The High Sierra Freewheel Laptop Backpack is uniquely suited for a BTS promotional push, as both “Laptop” and “Backpack” are high volume keywords during this period and the product addresses a very specific need of shoppers at this time of year.

Conclusion

It’s never too early for brands to start getting ready for the next big sales period – and once Back-to-School begins, it may already be too late. Brands have some ability to adjust their strategy in real-time by refining their page content and introducing lightning deals, but at that point the flow of traffic will have already  been diverted to the brands that set themselves up for success well ahead of time. Brands with great placement and promotions will capture the first waves, which then drives up their search and sales rank even more.

For brands selling office supplies, personal electronics and youth apparel, back-to-school is a crucial time of year. Brands have the opportunity to broaden their reach, increase their search rank, and capture the loyalty of Amazon shoppers. A successful BTS season means investing in strategic promotions, managing inventory, and understanding consumers, and will generate a long-term lift in sales that sustains itself well into the next year.

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